Beauty or Beast
The word tautog derives from tautauog, the name the Narragansett Indians gave to blackfish. Devotees further truncate the name, simply calling them tog.
Tautog are temperate-water members of the wrasse family and considerably larger than most of their kin, which tend to be tropical in locale, gaudy in color and rarely larger than 10 inches, with a few notable exceptions. It seems the farther north that wrasse species are found, the duller the coloration, which holds true for one of the tautog’s few Northern cousins, the cunner or bergall. The fish range from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, but they are most popular with anglers between Massachusetts and Virginia.
Although outlanders might be hard-pressed to call the tautog handsome, the faithful see only beauty in those big heads, round teeth and tough, slimy skin. They also are great eating. Male tautog are dull in appearance, dark gray to black on the back and sides, with a white belly that extends forward to the jutting bottom jaw, a feature responsible for the nickname “white chin.”
The coloration of females varies from mottled shades of brown to a dull bronze-tinged brown, without the bright belly. The head is rounder and doesn’t have the prominent lower jaw. Both have heavily muscled bodies with wide, broom-like tail fins, the source of their brute force. They eat mollusks and crustaceans, which they pass back from a mouth adorned with rounded teeth to a set of crushers in the rear of the throat that look like a plate of tightly packed molars. There the tautog squash the shells of the critters before swallowing them; the remainder of the shells are passed after digestion.
The pursuit of trophy tautog is done from both private boats and those for-hire vessels that have earned a reputation for consistently producing large fish. Although record fish have been taken elsewhere, the monsters typically come from the waters between Ocean City, New Jersey, and Ocean City, Maryland, where the new world record came over the rail in January 2016.
Blackfish are a slow-growing fish, and latitude appears to have a direct effect on their growth rate. Though they can live 35 years or more, a 3-pound tog in Massachusetts might be 10 years old, but that same fish farther south might be as young as 6 due to warmer water and a longer growing season.
They migrate inshore to spawn along beaches and in bays and head back offshore in the fall, with the bottom temperature dictating how deep they push, though they are rarely found deeper than 160 feet. If the water is too cold, their metabolism slows and they become semidormant, with little feeding taking place. This is why the Southern contingent tends to grow faster and larger and can be caught throughout the winter. It’s also the reason there’s an influx of cultists to these waters at that time of year.
Tautog make their home in the nastiest hard-bottom structures imaginable. They sport a heavy coat of slime that allows them to slip easily along sharp edges and through tight confines without injury. The slime is responsible for another tautog nickname: slippery bass. Home can be rock outcroppings, mussel beds, reefs or any man-made detritus on the ocean floor. Wrecks are particularly tog-friendly — and the kind of place where it’s difficult to pry out a big one.
There’s nothing fancy or flashy about the way a tautog fights. They don’t jump; there are no visuals. They don’t make long, blistering runs capable of melting drag washers. They are just doggedly strong and can muster an incredibly determined sprint back to their hidey-holes against heavy line and a locked-down drag. Their popularity is a combination of their brawling fight and the challenge of deciphering bites and setting the hook.
The tackle used might seem overmatched for the fish, but until you’ve been on the end of a tug of war with a double-digit tog, you really have no idea. The power they generate with their massive tail fin is disproportionate to their physical size and inspires a healthy dose of respect among their followers. If allowed to regain the structure from which they came, the result is usually a severed line or leader, parted as if it were thread.